About time

About time – The moment of writing, the moment of sending, the moment of reading, and the moment of….

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘About time’ Whites Writing Whiteness http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/about-time/ and provide a paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. An empty envelope. No letter at all! How curious!


2. On or about 12 May 1887 – a Thursday – Lizzie Forbes, living in Mercheston, in a suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland, posted a letter to her sister-in-law Kate Forbes, who lived on the farm estate Athole, in the New Scotland area of the south-eastern Transvaal, South Africa. It cost her a perhaps surprisingly large amount – 10 x 1d stamps and a 6d stamp as well, 1/4 or 1 shilling and 4 pence in the currency of the day. However, Lizzie typically wrote very long letters (and in very dense and difficult to read handwriting), and often sent enclosures such as newspaper cuttings with them.

3. The ‘moment’, in this case the date of posting, or rather the letter’s collection date (when it was stamped with the date and place of collection) is certified by the round postal mark or stamp. The envelope is separate from its once enclosed letter, so the date of the letter’s writing has to be guessed from this evidence and explored by reference to the many thousands of letters in the Forbes Collection (in the National Archives Repository of South Africa). Among the extant letters there are over 350 from Lizzie; among those with dates, there is just one from May 1887, dated 4 May, which is over eight days before this one was collected and stamped. Have other letters from May 1887 gone astray? Or might there have been reasons provided in the May 1887 letter, or the next in the sequence in June 1887, for a delay in posting? In fact there are not.

4. However, what is certain is that ‘the moment of writing’ and ‘the moment of sending’ were not one and the same. Even if the letter did not experience an eight day delay in being posted, there would still have been ‘a time’ between writing (earlier that day, perhaps the previous day) and posting and collecting. But perhaps there was that eight day gap, filled with what is now irrevocably lost.  backofenv

5. Time takes another hefty shimmer when the envelope is turned over. The two postal stamps on the back are fairly illegible, although one seems to have ‘6’ on it and if so may indicate a local, New Amsterdam or Ermelo, stamping on 6 June. If so, this indicates an incredibly speedy approximately 25 days between its stamping on collection in Edinburgh and the letter’s arrival in the south-east of the Transvaal. But there is more going on here than just the longness or the shortness (it could be either, depending on perceptions of epistolary travelling across space and time in 1887) of those 25 days.

6. Letters are always ‘in the present tense’ in a figurative sense if not always a literal one. That is, when they arrive and are read, they are read by the addressee as though in that moment of writing when they were authored. The May 1887 letter from Lizzie Forbes was collected from New Amsterdam or Ermelo and taken to Athole. There, someone – almost certainly Kate Forbes as the person it was addressed to – opened and read it on or about 8 June. But Time shimmered: ‘Dear X, I am well, this and that has happened, I am writing this, please write to me, I am…’. I am, I am; not I was.

7. June 1887 is indeed the month for which a very rough calendar has been written out on the back of the envelope, for the 8th is indicated as a Wednesday, and in 1887 there is only in month – June – when the 8th of the month falls on that day of the week. The calendar opens time up from 8 June and to 6 July. It starts on 8 June, which may indicate the date on which the letter arrived at Athole and was read. There are few clues – no clues! – as to what the calendar was for, although some guesses can be made.

8. One possibility is that it refers to the monthly cycle of letters which were written and sent by Lizzie, and the equally monthly cycle of letters back to her by Kate Forbes, sometimes one of Kate’s children, more occasionally by Lizzie’s brother and Kate’s husband David. A second, related, is that it was possibly written to use in working out when the overseas mails were collected and so when a reply would need to be written by. A third, which does not preclude the first or the second, is that the farming calendar was a daily task-based one and the seasons in the area where Athole is situated long and settled, and so being lost in time would have been easy without such devices as calendars and diaries. And so this particular example might have been to act as an aide memoire over the following days.

9. This is to think about time in the context of when that particular moment of writing in which the calendar was scribbled on the envelope’s back occurred in the routine of things. This is the quotidian time of the everyday, and concerns how such routines, including those of letter-writing and farming, marked the months, weeks, days. It represents a certain ambiguity, for inscribing such a device for keeping track of time indicates a lack, a need or a want. It is, however, hardly the urgent rhythms of the clock, the urgent chime, the insistent bell. Nor is particular day marked in this monthly period (rather oddly, of 29 days); it is the whole that is inscribed, not any particular part of it.

10. No letter? Maybe not, but there is a lot of what epistolarity is all about! A letter was written, sent, collected, travelled, arrived, was read; time passed; time shimmered; a cycle of giving and receiving was renewed.

Last updated: 12 April 2015


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